Woman finds comfort planning for funeral

02/03/06 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) It's not unusual for people to tell their loved ones whether they want to be cremated or buried once they die.

However, not many of us choose to order our coffin in advance and have it delivered to our house.

VPR's Steve Zind has a story about once such person.

(Workshop sounds)

(Zind) The rectangular pine box on the table in the middle of Richard Winter's Calais workshop doesn't look unusual. It could be a blanket chest or some kind of cabinet.

But once the lid and the rope handles are attached, it's clear - this is a coffin. Most of the time Winter is a cabinet maker. His customers hope the cabinets will last a lifetime. But those who buy a coffin from him don't want it to last long at all.

(Winter) "It's supposed to rot. It's supposed to return you to the soil."

(Zind) Winter's finding there's interest in simple coffins made from locally harvested pine and he doesn't mind devoting more of his work time to coffin making.

(Winter) "I find it healthy. I don't find it morbid at all. If you have that healthy attitude towards death, I think it helps you with your attitude towards life."

(Zind) The coffin he's working on has already been spoken for. But unlike the ones he's sold in the past, this wasn't ordered by survivors of the deceased.

(Winter) "This one that I have here is the only person that's still alive that came and looked at it and ordered it."

(Zind) Susan Sohlberg of Topsam asked Winter to make the coffin for her.

Sohlberg's life includes a 22-year teaching career at Chelsea High School, and a vigorous relationship with the outdoors. She's climbed all forty eight peaks, over four thousand feet in New Hampshire. She finished when she was seventy.

Last year, at seventy-two, she learned she had a malignant brain tumor. She's been told she has no more than a year to live.

Sohlberg is spending part of that time making arrangements for her own funeral.

(Sohlberg) "I want to do this. Because, if you've got a very dread disease, they always tell you to get in control. I thought if I could get it all organized that it would be emotionally healthier for me. Mr. Winter was quite surprised that I did not break down and shed tears while I was there. (laughs)"

(Zind) Winter's coffins cost about $500. Sohlberg says money wasn't the reason she chose to be buried in a pine coffin. She believes it's a more environmentally friendly way to go. She says the heavy, durable caskets offered by funeral homes might appeal to some people

(Sholberg)" If you're more King Tut or something..."

(Zind) but not to her. Sohlberg says she finds the idea of cremation unappealing.

She expects to take delivery on Richard Winter's coffin sometime soon and says she'll keep it in her study, although her husband Eric suggests storing it in the attic.

(Sohlberg) "It doesn't have to go in the attic, Eric. I'm going to decide. This is my baby, ok?"

(Zind) Now that she has her coffin, Solhberg is looking for a place to be buried. Many Vermont cemeteries require coffins to be placed in a concrete or steel vault in the ground and she doesn't want that.

Sohlberg seems matter-of-fact about making these arrangements for herself, but looks can be deceiving.

(Sohlberg) "That's what I'm endeavoring to do. It's not easy to be matter of fact. Sometimes you go berserk. And you drive the people who live with you berserk."

(Zind) Sohlberg wants to survive long enough to see her granddaughter graduate from high school this spring.

When her time comes she'll find some comfort in the knowledge that the funeral arrangements will be just as she wanted them and that no one in her family will be burdened by having to make them. As for the details of the funeral service itself:

(Sohlberg) "I think I'll leave that to my loved ones, they can decide. They might read poetry. You can never tell."

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.
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